The age of asteroid mining took a step closer to reality last week, but don’t get too excited just yet; there is still a long, long way to go if it is ever to be successful.
On July 16, hopeful asteroid prospectors Planetary Resources, based in Redmond, Washington, released their Arkyd 3 Reflight (A3R) spacecraft from the International Space Station (ISS). This tiny vehicle, a CubeSat, has very limited goals and abilities. In its 90 days of operation in low Earth orbit, it will test electronics systems and software that will eventually be used on fully fledged asteroid mining spacecraft.
The ultimate goal of the company is to send a spacecraft to an asteroid near Earth and scour it for useful minerals. Asteroids are rich in water and precious metals such as platinum, and a later fleet of rovers would then sweep the surface for these resources. This haul could then be launched back to Earth, or used in space.
"Asteroid mining might sound like a science fiction topic, but our company is deploying technology into space and even the governments of the world are taking up this topic and creating the policy and legal frameworks to support this activity," said Chris Lewicki, president and chief engineer of the company, reported ABC.
"So this isn't an activity that you'll have to wait for your grandchildren to enjoy. It is something we'll see unfold in front of our eyes in the next several years."
Planetary Resources claims that asteroid mining is an untapped trillion-dollar industry, although this has been called into question, and A3R represents their first step to achieving their goal. Their next prototype spacecraft, the A6R, will launch later this year to test propulsion, communication and power systems.
“All of our work at Planetary Resources is laying the foundation to better manage and increase humanity’s access to natural resources on our planet and in our Solar System,” said Eric Anderson, co-founder and co-chairman of Planetary Resources, in a statement.
Prospecting water for use in space could be very useful. Water is of course essential to astronauts, and it can also be split up into hydrogen and oxygen – the constituents of rocket fuel. Using asteroids to get water, rather than carrying it from Earth, could drastically reduce the cost of space travel.
Shown is the A3R launching from the Kibo module on the ISS. NASA.
But there are many problems the company faces, not least actually reaching an asteroid and returning minerals to Earth. Only Japan's Hayabusa spacecraft has ever landed on an asteroid and returned samples, but this was a minuscule amount. Planetary Resources wants to bring back 100 tonnes.
And there’s the issue of market saturation. Even if they do manage to achieve all these lofty goals, which seems somewhat unlikely at the moment (prove us wrong, Planetary Resources), inundating markets with precious metals will see their price drop dramatically. That hypothesized trillion-dollar industry might suddenly vanish when we’re all swimming in platinum.
Added to that, while we might have “rare metals” on Earth, they’re not actually that rare; they’re just hard to get to. But the cost of doing so is far less than what it will likely cost Planetary Resources to bring back minerals from an asteroid.
So, we applaud Planetary Resources on their successful launch of the A3R. And hey, any company that wants to further humanity’s presence in space is alright in our books. Just don’t get your hopes up too much just yet that “asteroid miner” will be a career prospect any time soon.